6 Fatal Flaws That Kill A Leader’s Effectiveness

May 3, 2021

A frustrated leader

Finding Fatal Flaws

Chances are you’ve known or read about great leaders and learned that they have weaknesses.  From that, you have concluded that you don’t have to be perfect to be a great leader.

In the research my colleague Joe Folkman and I conducted, we too have found that mild weaknesses do not appear to erode an exceptional leader’s effectiveness. Our research highlighted, however, that there was a difference between mere weaknesses and fatal flaws.  A fatal flaw is a significant weakness that goes beyond merely diminishing a leader’s effectiveness. A person with a fatal flaw was never among the most effective leaders in the organization.  Weaknesses can be overlooked.  Fatal flaws form such a strong negative impression, they cannot be ignored.

Recently, we were certifying a group of coaches who support a leading university’s Executive Education program. We explained our definition of a fatal flaw as a competency on which a leader had a score at or below the 10th percentile.  One of the coaches posed an excellent question, “On which competencies do fatal flaws most frequently occur?”

A Comparison with World Health

Six diseases are responsible for a large percentage of deaths around the world. Heart disease and stroke account for more than half of all deaths. Then pulmonary diseases, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes follow.  If the goal is to diminish the death rate, these are the diseases on which to focus.

What are the comparable areas of leadership behavior that account for the greatest numbers of leadership failures?

Identifying the Most Frequent Leadership Failures

We examined data from over 87,000 leaders. The data was from a 360 assessment where leaders from across the globe were evaluated by (on average) 13 other people.

In our original research, we identified a profound strength as a competency at the 90th percentile. We decided to apply the same logic at the other end of the scale. We identified those behaviors at or below the 10th percentile as fatal flaws. We calculated the 10th percentile mean score for each of the competencies we measured and then created an overall 10th percentile average score.

Using this 10th percentile average score as the general cut-off score for fatal flaws, we then identified which competencies had the highest and lowest frequency of people in this fatal flaw range.

What was the most common fatal flaw among all leaders? The answer was “Inspiring and Motivating People to High Performance.”

Impact of Fixing Fatal Flaws

There was a natural breakpoint in the data after the top 6 competencies. Five of the top six fatal flaws among leaders are interpersonal skills. It wasn’t a leader’s ability to get results, their technical expertise, or strategic skills that brought them down. It was how they interacted with others. Is this surprising? A study done with Bank of America showed that more 39% of millennials admitted to interacting more with their smartphone than the actual people in their lives. At the end of the day, many leaders have been so focused inward that they forgot their main job was to focus outward on those they are supposed to lead.

Fatal flaws don’t have to be fatal. We have found, to the surprise of many, that over 60% of leaders who received feedback on their fatal flaws were able to make a significant positive change. In a study with 1,469 leaders with fatal flaws, we found that by working to improve these flaws they were able to move their overall leadership effectiveness rating from the 18th percentile to the 46th percentile.

How to Improve The Six Most Common Fatal Flaws in Leaders

Inspires and Motivates. The most common fatal flaw is the inability to inspire and motivate others. One in five leaders has this serious problem. Most leaders have learned how to drive for results. We call that push. Pushing is an effective way to make sure that others get work done. Setting deadlines, holding others accountable, reminding others of deadlines and rewarding or punishing people when deadlines are met or missed, gets results and motivates people.

Most leaders know how to push, but another way to influence others to perform well is to pull or inspire and motivate. Inspiring leaders get people excited about achieving a goal. They infuse energy into their activities.

Not everyone feels that they can be inspiring.  They jokingly admit that they do not want to be a cheerleader. The problem with having a fatal flaw on this competency is that these leaders are uninspiring. They tend to drag people down around them.

It’s possible for leaders to learn to be more inspiring. They can learn to bring positive emotions to work and make the effort to connect with other team members. A leader who keeps others informed is much more inspiring than a leader who keeps team members in the dark.  Finally, they find meaningful ways to develop employees.

Practices Self-Development. The second most common fatal flaw is one over which you have complete control. One technique for self-development is asking others for feedback. But many people resist. People who learn this skill are more successful in practicing self-development because other people let them know when they are making a mistake. The false assumption people have is that if you ask others for feedback it will make you look weak or insecure. In reality, it makes you look courageous and confident. Those you ask feel respected and often give helpful suggestions that make you a better leader. Younger employees are more likely to ask for feedback, but that declines as the decades go by.

Teamwork and Collaboration. Have you ever been part of a great team? Have you ever been in a group where it was fun to just be there and be included? You worked hard because the team worked hard. On the other hand, have you ever been on a difficult team? The difference is huge. Being on a great team improves morale, productivity, quality and engagement. Some leaders can build a good team, but then decide they are in competition with other teams in the company. They hoard resources, resist communication and fail to cooperate. That kind of behavior makes the organization less successful. Leaders can learn how to build a positive team and cooperate with other teams.

Develops Others. Employee surveys show that one of the most sought-after rewards of a job is the opportunity to develop and learn a new skill. Development changes jobs into a career. Many leaders complain that they are overwhelmed with their jobs but resist training one of their direct reports to take over some of their responsibilities. Leaders who seek opportunities to develop their direct reports increase engagement and the productivity of the team.

Communicates Powerfully. Communication is one of the easiest skills to improve. Our research revealed that when comparing pre-test to post-test results, the largest improvement came in the area of communication. Many leaders are simply lazy about keeping others informed, sharing information correctly or following up with others. Others think that squirreling information gives them more power and influence. Going from a fatal flaw to average takes effort and practice, but small changes are highly visible and noticed by others. Two fundamental skills can make a profound improvement in communication. One is the willingness and ability to ask good questions. The second is the skill of listening. Good listening, however, is not simply remaining silent while the other person speaks. It involves actively working to truly understand what another person is thinking, feeling, and helping them to convey this efficiently and effectively.

Builds Relationships. Some leaders have a difficult time building and maintaining positive relationships with others. Some leaders fear familiarity with others, assuming that if they are friendly with team members, they will take advantage of you. What suffers the most with poor relationships is trust. Distrust erodes almost every other aspect of leadership. Learning the fundamentals of how to build a positive, trusting relationship with others is a skill that will help people in every aspect of their lives.

If you are a leader who struggles with one of these six common fatal flaws, ask for help. Even small incremental improvements can make a significant positive impact on how a leader is perceived by others.  On the aggregate responses from a manager, several peers and direct reports; if the responses on a 5-point scale are increased by ½ of a point, the person moves from being at the 10thpercentile to the 50thpercentile. Rather modest changes in behavior can make a huge difference in how a leader is perceived.

-Jack Zenger

(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website. Register for this month’s leadership webinar hosted by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.